Black Lives Matter. That was the theme of the sermon. And so, near the end of the church service, when Reverend Bryant is saying, “Come up to the altar. Anyone who needs a prayer,” I being white, like Darren Wilson, and the remainder of the church being black, like Michael Brown, I certainly don’t want to come up regardless of what prayer I think I might need.
Earlier in the service, Reverend Bryant broke the congregation up into four prayer circles: one group would pray for our public institutions, one would pray for our community, one would pray for our church, and one would pray for our police officers. She didn’t feel the need to justify the first three, but of the fourth she said, “If someone breaks into my house, you know I’m calling 911.” There’s more, but I’m not listening because I’m busy trying to reconstruct the Dave Chappelle stand-up bit about why black people are afraid of cops. “Sometimes we want to call them too,” he says. “Someone broke into my house once. This’d be a good time to call them. But…” he’s shaking his head. He’s not calling the cops. “My house is too nice,” he says. And he knows that the cops are going to hit him over the head for being a black man in a nice house. The officers will then look around, hands on hips, and say, “It’s an open-and-shut case, Johnson. I saw this once before when I was a rookie. Apparently, this nigger broke in and hung up pictures of his family everywhere.”
And now, “Come up to the alter,” Pastor Bryant is saying, “anyone who needs a prayer. Anyone who needs a prayer. Please come up.” It’s odd to find myself, against my will, stepping out from my pew and walking up the center aisle. I have never wanted to draw any attention to myself whatsoever. This has always been my tack where church service is concerned. I’m from the humble Methodist tradition of quiet prayer. I have always considered making a display of my prayers disingenuous and self-serving. But now I’m at the altar.
It occurs to me, when I arrive, that standing and walking was the easy part because I’m not sure what to do now. Another person has come up as well, a woman who announces that she’s joining the church and everyone except me is shouting and clapping and I stand there, hands clasped in front of me like an altar boy. This clapping and shouting goes on for a while. I wait, alter-boy like, unsure of what to do. I’m still facing front, feeling a bit separated from reality, when the diminutive pastor Bryant appears in front of me. “Do you need a prayer?” she says.
The chapter upon which she had based her sermon was John 9. A man had a son. The man’s son was possessed by a demon. The demon threw the man’s son to the ground and made him froth at the mouth. Sometimes, the demon threw the man’s son into the fire. Sometimes into the water. The man asked Jesus to help him. Jesus told him that if he were able to believe, then all things would be possible.
“Rabi,” said the man, “I believe.” And then, in the same breath, “Help my unbelief.”
Pastor Bryant, after reading the passage, admitted to being unsure why God had led her to it. It didn’t seem to be a natural fit with the theme she wanted to prosecute.
If my son Michael lived in the days of Christ, we would say he was possessed by a demon. These days, we say he suffers from seizures. Michael doesn’t have much language. The language he does have is unreliable. When he says, “I want pizza please,” for example, he might mean, “I want to go for a ride in the car.” Yesterday, when Michael kept asking for chicken, Deb and I decided to believe that he did actually want chicken. So we drove to the Coral Ridge Mall for Panda Express. In line, Deb wondered whether we should get him a double order of the orange chicken, which is his favorite, or one order of orange chicken and one of something else. What did I think?
“I don’t know,” I said. “Mike, do you want orange chicken?”
Mike didn’t respond at all.
“Orange chicken,” I said, “or beef?”
He didn’t respond.
“Well,” I said, “we know he likes orange chicken, so let’s just go double on that.”
Mike isn’t a small kid. At sixteen, he’s six foot one; two hundred and twenty pounds. It looks a bit odd seeing my petite wife leading him around by the arm. We have often worried that he’d realize, one day, that he didn’t need to do what we told him.
I left Deb and Mike at the table and walked across the food court to Safari where I ordered a Gyros platter. Safari always takes a little longer than the other places and I got the Gyros to go, assuming Mike would be done with his orange chicken by the time I got back. As I approached the table, I noticed that something wasn’t right. Orange chicken and fried rice were scattered across the floor. An upside-down paper plate. An upturned paper cup. Deb appeared to have pushed herself away from the table, her arms at full length and she was laughing. Mike was sitting rigidly in his seat, expressionless. I didn’t notice the police officer. Nor do I notice that the food court had fallen silent and that the patrons had vacated the space around Deb and Mike’s table. I glanced at Deb again and noticed that what I took for laughter wasn’t laughter. She was crying.
Michael had tossed his full plate of food before he attacked his mother. He first grabbed her wrists and hands, bloodying them with his fingernails. He then took a swing at her head. Deb ducked the blow and then pushed the table into Mike’s midsection to keep him away. An officer was shouting at Michael to stop at the same time Deb was shouting, “He doesn’t understand you! He’s autistic! He doesn’t know what you’re saying!” The officer, much smaller than my son and visibly afraid, continued shouting. “You need to stand down right away! Stand down! You can’t do that!” And then, “Don’t worry, mam, I’m calling for backup!”
“My son is sixteen,” I tell Reverent Bryant. “He can’t talk much. So, he can’t tell us what he’s thinking. And he’s getting real violent.” I pause. And then I struggle on. “He attacked my wife again. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Reverend Bryant calls all the men of the church forward. To stand around me. “If you can’t touch brother Joe, then touch someone who is touching him,” she says. And then she, leading all my brothers and sisters in the church, says a prayer for belief.